We’ve been discussing it for well over a year. My wife has wanted to sell the house. It’s time to downsize, she argued. Let’s get out of the suburbs and get more urban, she said. But, in this case, I was the more emotional one. I wasn’t ready to let go. The roof leaked, so we put on a new one late last year. She reasoned that would increase the value and make it easier to sell. Finally, in January, she convinced me. We would sell. But, now, my experience and expertise would have to take over. We would wait until school let out to catch the right time for buyers. That would also give us time to clean up and make a few more cosmetic repairs. We were in agreement and moving forward.

During this time, the discussions were intense. How much could we get, she pondered. I had been watching property values for years and I gave her my reasoned opinion. “No way” she contended. We had no pool, there was so much that she would do to our house and therefore, any buyer would do, that no one would pay that much for the house. I responded that we had kept a clean house, fresh paint, new appliances and air conditioning units, modern kitchen and bathrooms. The house was move in ready. Aside from carpet cleaning or replacement, there is nothing to do that would affect the value, no pool and “ugly” back yard notwithstanding.

During the 6 month lead in to the time to sell, she insisted we call our real estate agent to give her a “heads up”. She was so anxious to get this done. “Why?” I asked. So she could prepare. I assured my wife that the agent didn’t need 6 month prep time. So, a couple months ago, we called our handy man to do some repairs and when he was finished, we made the call. On the Sunday before Father’s Day, our agent came to the house armed with comps and statistics. What she told us was that our house was beautiful and in perfect shape to show. The comps were even higher than I thought they would be and that she believed we could get AT LEAST $5,000 more than I had estimated that we could get. She suggested listing the house slightly higher than the highest comp. We were exactly on the same page. My wife was surprised but very pleased.

The house would go on MLS sometime Thursday. I told my wife that the house would be shown that very weekend – Father’s Day weekend. She said absolutely not. It was too quick and it was Father’s Day. The listing hit about dinner time Thursday. The first showing was Friday morning. There were 3 or 4 more showings Saturday. Our agent told us that we would have an offer by Monday. I told my wife that this would be over by the middle of the week, as did the agent. The offer came in higher than either of us predicted and we countered so as to get nearly our asking price.

While my wife was surprised, our agent and I knew all along how this would play out. There was almost no inventory in our neighborhood, which is a very desirable area for families. Schools are great. Young families want to be here. Our new roof and appliances add tremendous value. Our agent recognized this and highlighted the listing to reflect this.

We have a very short time to get our act together and find a new place. But because we were so much in synch with our agent, I am confident we will be on this process as well. I am a real estate attorney and I know the business as well as anybody. Realistically, I could have sold our house with anyone doing the listing and handling the contract. But the truth is, having a good agent who understands you, your needs and your property can make the process so much easier and stress free. And, from my perspective, it gave me validation and will continue to give me validation as we get through the closing. Choose your agents wisely. They can be gems.

When 2 parties sign a real estate contract, they generally do so with the expectation that the seller wants to sell and the buyer wants to buy. Basically, at the time that the contract is signed, both parties want to close. However, sometimes, things happen and one of the parties changes their mind and decides they don’t want to close. Now what?

There is no right or easy answer to this question. Who is attempting to terminate the contract and their reason for doing so are important factors in determining what to do. A common occurrence is when a buyer decides not to proceed at the end of the due diligence period. Most commercial real estate contracts and many residential contracts provide the buyer a time, following contract execution, to inspect the property and determine whether it is suitable for buyer’s use. Sometimes the inspection paragraph is broadly drafted and sometimes it is narrow in scope. At the end of the due diligence period, the buyer, if not satisfied, may provide notice of termination to the seller and the deposit is to be released to the buyer. Most of the time, this goes without a hitch.

But things don’t always go smoothly here, even though the provision has been negotiated and is clearly spelled out in the contract. Sellers have waited through the due diligence period patiently (or not) and want to proceed to closing and object to the termination. I had a case where my buyer client requested several extensions of the due diligence period, purportedly to complete zoning review. When the buyer ultimately terminated the contract, seller objected arguing fraud because the buyer had never made application for approval and failure to give timely notice of termination. The due diligence provision was broad and allowed the buyer to terminate for any reason. But, seller refused to consent to the release of the $50,000 deposit. When no agreement could be reached, my buyer client sued for release of the deposit. The escrow agent placed the deposit in the court registry. We prevailed at summary judgment with the court finding that the seller had voluntarily executed each amendment extending due diligence and buyer’s notice of termination was timely. Seller had to release the deposit and pay buyer’s attorney’s fees. Whether the buyer had made application for the zoning approval was not relevant.

A buyer might also attempt to terminate a contract because of a failure to satisfy other contingencies such as financing or government approvals. From the buyer’s perspective, it is important that, regardless of how the contract is drafted, the buyer document its efforts to timely satisfy the contingencies and keep the seller advised of all its efforts. If buyer does not keep the seller informed and then is unable to satisfy a contingency, seller could have grounds to object to buyer’s attempt to terminate the contract and recover the deposit. If not expressly stated, buyer has an implied covenant of good faith which means that the buyer must use its best efforts to satisfy the contingencies. If the seller isn’t in the loop, the seller can also allege that the buyer has not reasonably attempted or used best efforts to do so.

Sellers, likewise, fail to close from time to time. Buyers’ remedies are usually clearly spelled out – specific performance being the most common. To assure that a buyer can pursue specific performance as a remedy, buyer must demonstrate that it was “ready, willing and able” to close on the closing date and seller failed to perform.

This can be illustrated in another case I had a few years ago. My client was a tenant under a commercial lease. Under the lease, the client had an option to purchase after the 3rd lease year if exercised between 120 and 60 days before the end of the 3rd lease year. The terms of the purchase were set forth in the lease and the option was to be exercised in writing to landlord by tenant preparing a contract, signing the contract and sending it to landlord. Closing was to occur 60 days thereafter. We prepared the contract and timely exercised the option. The landlord’s attorney responded that the option was not valid for a myriad of reasons and if we wanted to purchase the property, the price would be 2.5 times the option price. The shake down was on.

Though we spent the next 60 days arguing with the landlord’s attorney as to why the landlord was wrong about the validity of the option, we also prepared for the inevitable lawsuit by getting ready for closing. We ordered title and survey. We prepared closing documents. The client sent me the required deposit and I notified the landlord and the attorney that the deposit was being held in my trust account. Upon receipt of the title commitment, I sent a title objection letter. We prepared a closing statement and requested seller documents. The day before the closing, the client wired the net closing proceeds to my trust account.

On the scheduled closing date, I sent the buyer signed closing documents to the landlord’s attorney and advised that all closing proceeds were in my trust account ready to be delivered to landlord/seller upon receipt of the deed and other closing documents. In effect, I “tendered” the closing proceeds. Of course, the seller/landlord rejected our tender and refused to close. We filed a lawsuit for specific performance and, because we took all of these steps, won on summary judgment. After concluding that the option was valid (rejecting all arguments of the landlord), the court cited each step we took to confirm that buyer was ready, willing and able to close and ordered landlord to convey the property to my client. Landlord was also ordered to pay all of my client’s legal fees.

Disputes over closings occur. Attention to detail on both buyer’s and seller’s side is necessary to enforce the contract or to resolve the dispute without litigation. Luckily, I have only had a handful of these cases go to court over the years. Not every deal will close. In fact, most won’t. But no one wants to litigate. Detail starts in the contract and continues as you work through due diligence and prepare to close. If the transaction is not going to close, this attention to detail will help avoid the costs of litigation.

There was a time, not so long ago, when a high percentage of the residential closings that we were doing were short sales. Short sales really ramped up following the bursting of the housing bubble and then peaked during the foreclosure crisis.  We all know how we got there and we remember the no doc, no review teaser loans.  Short sales were a fact of life.  We represented both buyers and sellers in short sales.  In both cases, we were at the mercy of the lenders in addressing the ridiculous number of requirements for approvals and then waiting for months on end for the approvals to come back.

Fortunately, those days are behind us. Short sales are rare, but not completely gone.  So, if you are selling you’re house, how do you know if a short sale is right for you and what will a short sale mean for you?  I haven’t thought much about these questions for a while, but like most of my blog posts, I am inspired to write about this now because recently, a new client inquired about short sales.  The client was transferred from South Florida to Atlanta, leaving behind a house with an outstanding mortgage balance (combined 1st and second) of over $800,000.  The house is not yet listed for sale, though the client has already relocated.  The agent expects that the house will sell for under $700,000.  The client wanted to know what to do and what will happen.  His first question was whether we should apply for short sale approval with the lenders now.

The answer is no. Obviously, if the agent is correct, there will be a short sale.  However, until a contract is signed, there is no approval to obtain from the lenders because we don’t know the amount of the deficiency.  And, because there are 2 lenders, the contract might be enough to satisfy the 1st mortgage leaving the 2nd unpaid.  If the 1st insists upon full payment, the dynamics of the negotiations would change completely.

In addition, in order to approve a short sale, lenders require an appraisal of the property. The appraisal must be by an approved appraiser and can’t be too old.  So, we couldn’t submit an appraisal yet.  The appraisal might be stale by the time a contract is signed.

Another factor is the client’s ability to pay the deficiency. If the client is liquid or has net worth or otherwise has income, lenders are less willing to write off the deficiency.  Where 2 lenders are involved, the client has a bigger hurdle, especially if the 1st mortgagee takes all of the sales proceeds.  Attempting to obtain pre-contract approval would bring attention to these issues far too early in the process.

At this point, I suggested to the client that it would be a bad idea to have any conversation with either lender until there was a contract in place. Once a contract has been signed, it should be submitted to each lender for approval and a case made for the short sale.  Here, the arguments have to be made that the client is unable to pay the deficiency.  I explained that lenders are supposed to make this decision on a primarily objective basis, but we can give subjective reasons for an economic hardship.  But, since we are not in the crisis mode any more, it is now difficult to predict how lenders will lenders will react and that the client needs to be prepared to address the deficiency.

Short sales can’t be counted on as escape routes for home owners or as a simple alternative to the foreclosure process any more. Lenders are less willing to write off deficiencies without a compelling economic hardship.  Because there isn’t a back log of short sales to approve, lenders will carefully review every request for short sale.  If you have other options, you should consider them as well.

I have written previously about title commitments and policies and surveys and the importance of the review process. Perhaps I haven’t discussed the importance of knowing who you are working with and what their abilities are.  Taking that back to the fist step, as the buyer of real estate, how do you assure that you can work with top notch title professionals.  The basic rule is that the person paying for title insurance chooses the agent and underwriter.  Because this is a cost item, and in Florida, a significant one, sometimes buyers and brokers want to negotiate the cost over to the seller.  This is a bad idea as it gives the seller control of the title process.  The seller selects the agent and the underwriter and the buyer is stuck with whatever is presented and is at a disadvantage when it comes to resolving issues.

I can tell countless horror stories about having to work with the other guy’s title company, on large deals and on small deals, going back many years. Needless to say, when my client controls title, the process and result goes much smoother (note, in Florida, attorneys may act as title agent, meaning we issue the policy for the underwriter).  I select the underwriter I feel is appropriate for the deal.  I have long relationships with examiners and underwriters and I know that the commitment I receive will be thorough and if there is a problem, we will jointly work to solve it.  It won’t be thrown back at me without a solution.

More often than not, when the other guy is in control, the opposite occurs. We find problems that the title company missed.  We run down the solutions when the title company should.  We argue with underwriters.  Product and documents are not timely delivered. Because it is not my transaction, I can’t go around the agent even if I have a relationship with the examiner.  Deals stall or even die.

Recently, my buyer client signed a contract prior to contacting where he agreed to pay for title but use the seller’s title company. This was a double no no.  The title commitment appeared clean.  The seller provided an unsigned, unsealed survey dated just 10 months prior.  However, the seller never received the final survey.  Naturally, the title company was unwilling to delete the survey exception based on this survey.  We tried to contact the surveyor to get a signed copy and update the survey, but the surveyor had gone out of business.  We therefore obtained a new survey.  The new survey showed us that there was no access to the property from a public road.  Therefore, the title was not marketable.

Presumably, the title company had based its commitment on seller’s prior policy, issued less than 1 year ago. I asked numerous times for a copy of the prior policy and for an explanation as to what the title company would require in order to insure access.  I got neither.  The agent would not allow me to speak to the underwriter.  After 3 weeks, I was finally able to speak with the underwriter from the prior title company who explained to me that the prior policy had made exception for the access issue specifically.  Therefore, the title company either never received the prior policy or ignored it.  Either way, they kept silent.

We eventually received documentation from the county enabling the title company to insure access and allowing us to close. But, the point is that the other guy’s title company did a horrible job.  It missed the access problem initially, refused to explain the problem until I figured it out from the prior title company and then wouldn’t tell us how to resolve it for another week.  They delayed the closing by a month and a half.  All this happened because I did not have control of title because the contract gave it to the other guy.

In another on-going case, the other guy’s title company has taken over 6 months to issue the final title policy.  After months of pleading and finally, threats, we received the policy.  It was wrong.  It did not even match the marked up commitment issued at closing.  The delay in issuing the final policy has delayed our client in re-financing its property.  Our new title search for the new loan policy has uncovered potential title problems that should have been resolved when we bought the property and were never shown on the title commitment.  But other guy’s title company never raised these potential issues.  If/when we get the final policy, we might have to file a claim if the new underwriter is not satisfied that the potential issues have been resolved.  I really wish the client had not negotiated away the control of the title in this case.

Whenever possible, do not negotiate the right to control title away. The cost of title insurance is a cost well spent to insure that your deal will close the way you want it to close.

This year, hurricanes, with record rain, storm surges and winds, have resulted in severe damage to both commercial and residential buildings, mold contamination, and significant interruption to businesses in the impacted areas. Several Caribbean islands have been wiped away, Key West is unrecognizable, and Houston may have lost more than 150,000 homes. For most of us, luckily, the damage was less severe. My wife and I have leaks in our roof and elsewhere and lost a window (but gained an indoor tree). We lost power for about four and a half days. Friends in South Miami are still without power as of the writing of this post.

The legal implications of the hurricane aftermath extend well beyond mere rebuilding. Mold contamination and water intrusion must be addressed and properly remediated. Design and construction defects may be alleged to have exacerbated the extent of the damage from the hurricane. Employers may face workers’ compensation claims from employees and also may have vacation and lost wages concerns. Insurance coverage may be at issue. Construction costs may have escalated causing losses to builders or developers. Building permits and development approvals may expire due to delays caused by the hurricane. Condominium associations may not have sufficient reserves to act on emergency repairs. Construction licensing regulations may affect the ability to commence repairs and provide penalties for failure to engage properly certified contractors.

So what to do?

  • Make sure you and your family, employees and customers will be safe in your home or building.
    • Are there electrical system damage and risks?
    • Is the water safe to drink?
    • Is there a risk to the structural integrity of improvements?
    • Other Physical Hazards (don’t panic, but snakes and scorpions like piles of debris).
    • Contamination? Such as leaking petroleum tanks, chemical spills and the like.
  • Address potential health risks, whether mold or risky property conditions.
  • Secure your property and protect it from potential or further loss of property value.
  • Deal with Insurance.
  • Deal with Government Agencies such as FEMA
  • Deal with FP&L’s reimbursement programs.
  • Check with your mortgage lender. The lender may have the right to collect insurance proceeds and disburse the funds as repair and rebuilding proceed.
  • Only then commence to restore your property. Use only licensed and insured contractors. Where required by law, obtain all necessary permits and approvals. If you are part of a condominium or property owners’ association, make sure all Board approvals are obtained.
  • Get on with your life

Our lawyers have assisted clients in resolving insurance disputes, negotiating agreements in connection with assessment and remediation services, resolving design and construction defect claims,  implementing programs for addressing employee benefits, preparing hurricane and disaster response plans, and in finding their way through myriad environmental regulations.   In one recent example,  we resolved an insurer’s denial of coverage for water damage based on a theory that the building envelope was defectively designed or constructed and that the damage was not caused by a windstorm (as provided in the policy). By engaging the proper experts, a successful argument was made that the building envelope was properly designed and constructed and that it was indeed the hurricane-force winds that caused the water intrusion.

In another example, we assisted a client in requesting an extension of the expiration date for various development approvals that could not be met due to the direct delays of the hurricane, the difficulty in obtaining materials and the need to redesign to address increases in construction costs.

In addition to helping guide our clients in making proper recovery efforts, we are also focusing our clients’ attention on preventative measures to avoid future repeat damage and liability. We have found that many building and business owners have been hesitant to expend significant sums in prevention, in part to the belief that the recent hurricane landfalls in Florida were merely a fluke.  Whether global warming or a regular climatological cycle, it appears that the Atlantic hurricane season has been on an upswing that may continue for a decade or more. Proper preparation can lessen the business impacts and speed up recovery efforts.

 

    Get Blog Updates

    Get news, insights, and commentary delivered straight to your inbox!
    Click Here

    About Us

    Welcome to Assouline & Berlowe’s Florida Real Estate Law and Investment Blog with news, insights, and commentary for investors, developers, and their advisors.

    Topics

    Recent Updates

    Archives

    Stay ConnectedLinkedIn

    STAY TUNED!
    Get Blog Updates
    We'll send you an email whenever we add a new post.
    Stay Updated
    Give it a try, you can unsubscribe anytime.
    close-link
    Get news, insights, and commentary delivered straight to your inbox!
    Click Here
    close-link